Can I get into an OK grad school?
October 12, 2018 10:16 AM   Subscribe

I've always wanted to get a Master's or PHD degree in Education or the humanities. But I'm worried that my poor academic record will stop me - after a decade long undergraduate career that included plenty of failed classes, I came out with a 2.5 GPA. More details after the jump.

My undergraduate career was a decade long struggle - I suffered from depression, came out as gay, my mother was imprisoned, then committed suicide.... You get the point. I hate talking about all this, because it feels like a pity party. There are parts of my academic record don't really bother me - I failed a Jogging class, for example.

But there is a lot that does. There were a lot of times that I never turned in a final paper because it didn't meet my own perfectionist standards. (Actually, I was able to present one of those never submitted papers at a conference later, where it was well-received.) And there was ample laziness involved, too.

I guess there are some good things in my transcript - I took 4 graduate level courses and performed well in all of them. My professors who seemed truly impressed by my work and are willing to write recommendations. I have a near perfect score on the verbal section of the GRE.

For the last two years, I've been living in China, where I have been teaching English. I like it, but I don't really see a long-term path ahead of me. I'd love to return to school and get a Masters in Education or English. I'm just not sure if it's practical. Any advice would be very welcome.
posted by anonymous to Education (9 answers total)
A masters in education is generally focused on some aspect of education. If you enjoy teaching English to speakers of other languages you might consider a masters in teaching English as a foreign language and your teaching experience in China might really counter-balance your weak grades. If you maintain official residence in a US state look into graduate programs at public universities in that state. You may still want to go on for a doctorate, and getting outstanding grades in your masters program should make that more possible.

A masters in English, like in literature, won't get you much of anything in the way of work.

If you're not really sure what you want to do with the degree start looking into the various graduate programs in English and Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (aka TOEFL) and see what attracts you. You may choose to do something entirely different.

Check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics online tool for determining how much demand for for people in certain occupations is growing or decreasing.
posted by mareli at 10:40 AM on October 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Where would you like to live and teach? The specifics in your question suggest US, so if you'd like to return there permanently/semipermanently, and you'd like to teach, look into programs in the state(s) you think you'd like to settle in, and think about whether a MA in Teaching or an MA in Education (potentially with a focus on English teaching or English curriculum design) might serve you best. When deciding, research the training and licensing requirements for your specific state(s) to ensure you choose a program that will satisfy those requirements.

High GRE scores, a good professional track record, and (ideally) recent recommendations from people who know your work can all offset a weaker undergraduate GPA, especially for teaching-oriented programs. In my experience, MA in English programs are more likely to be competitive, more likely to demand higher undergrad GPAs, and (despite this) offer you a much worse return on your investment and far fewer opportunities to actually find any sort of job, let alone teach -- it's much less practical than your other options, since it'll mostly entail reading a bunch of literature and then writing a thesis and (probably) then applying for a PhD, program or another MA that will actually let you teach.
posted by halation at 11:32 AM on October 12, 2018

I was accepted for a master’s program in Education through Open University in the UK, and my gpa was close to yours.

I can’t tell you if you should get a master’s, but I think it’s very likely that you can.
posted by greermahoney at 11:45 AM on October 12, 2018

FWIW, my profile was similar to yours when I applied to grad school. My GPA was higher (about 3.0), but my recommendations were just OK, and I didn't have as many mitigating factors. I likewise did have graduate-level coursework and scored in the 98th percentile of the verbal GRE (gotta brag where I can!). I was not accepted at any of the programs I applied to. This was in 2004, for Ph.D. programs in political science.

I'm hard-pressed to think of a situation in which a terminal M.A. in English would be practical. Terminal master's degrees in the humanities and social sciences tend to be frowned upon. If you're interested in teaching high-school level, a M.A. in Education would be more useful. I am not particularly familiar with that application process.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:56 AM on October 12, 2018

I went to a college that didn't assign letter grades, and I got into both grad schools I applied to. What I did have was good GRE scores and great recommendation letters. It's not impossible by any stretch of the imagination. Like others have said above, think long and hard about what you want to do with the degree before you jump into it though.
posted by lovecrafty at 12:03 PM on October 12, 2018

I feel like I was in a similar situation to you 10-15 years ago: I spent several years teaching in China after college, trying to figure out what I'd do next. I had great test scores but was definitely not a great college student, but I loved teaching and learning and loved the idea of a rigorous, prestigious academic program that would help me erase that lackluster college performance and give me an impressive degree that I could carry for the rest of my life to show that I'm a smart person who can accomplish important things.

However, getting a degree for the sake of getting a degree is a really, really bad idea. That's definitely what I wanted to do, and it sounds from your post like that's what you want to do. The two options you suggest don't sound like they would be that helpful to you.

A terminal masters in English (that is, not one designed to be a stepping stone to a PhD) is close to worthless for increasing future employment prospects, even if it comes from a very good school. A masters in education is generally a professional degree, it's preparation for a career as a classroom teacher, and is usually part of a credentialing program. Is that what you're looking for? When I was in your situation, a big part of me just wanted to be back in school, but unless you are independently wealthy and looking to pass time reading books and talking to smart people on a university campus (still sounds fun to me now years later), it's not a good idea.

Don't go to med school unless you want to be a doctor, don't go to law school unless you want to be a lawyer, etc. Figure out what you want to *do*, then if grad school is necessary for that, look into programs for it. Your GPA is an obstacle, but if you are otherwise a good fit for a good program, you will probably be able to find a good one that will take you on. Being a good fit for a good program involves having a clear commitment to the field and goals that are aligned with what the program does. Not having those would be much worse for your chances of acceptance to a good program than a low GPA.
posted by skewed at 3:01 PM on October 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am an undergraduate advisor; I am not your undergraduate advisor. What I typically say to folks in your situation:

- totally, absolutely, underscoring everything that was said above about being sure that this is what you want to do. You can take an undergraduate degree in many things and do many other things with it, as long as you don't require specific technical training (you won't be a nuclear engineer on the basis of an English degree), but with graduate degrees, you're usually training to do something more specific (though again, there's a lot of wiggle room - I'll be able to do everything from academia to .com with my phd in a STEM adjacent social science). Grad school is a lot of your time and money (even if you're funded), so be absolutely sure you want to go.

- Do you have an upward trend in your grades? Can you show that while perhaps you had a rocky start, you did better towards the end? This isn't necessarily a dealbreaker, but it helps.

- Can you demonstrate that your life has changed such that you can be successful in graduate school? Graduate schools are going to want to hear - BRIEFLY - about what interfered with your undergraduate career (this isn't a pity party, it's just an assessment of facts), and then they're going to want to hear that your life has changed such that these factors will no longer interfere with your academic success. You won't be able to just not turn in papers because you're not happy with them anymore, for example - you're going to have to be able to turn in papers that you think are pretty good and watch your advisor and profs critique them in order to improve them even more.

- Many schools have provisions for admitting students with a less than stellar undergraduate record under limited circumstances. You should not expect funding under these circumstances. For example, my department can do a provisional admittance, where they admit someone who has less than a 3.0 undergraduate GPA (a 3.0 is a common cut-off, and for us, it's set by the graduate school, not the department), and that person has a semester to do well and then a decision is made on being fully admitted. We have to make a case to the graduate school for the student in order to do this, which means they have to have a pretty compelling trajectory.

We also have a program that, for the sake of remaining plausibly anonymous, I'll call "Targets" instead of its actual name. "Targets" allows anyone to take up to 12 graduate credits in a program without being admitted, taking GREs, etc. At the end of the 12 hours, programs can make a decision on admitting the student. It's a low key way for students to try graduate school without a lot of commitment, and for programs to try on students with less than stellar records. Many schools have similar programs.

- Talk to the graduate director of the program(s) you're interested in. Healthy programs will have graduate directors who are happy to talk to prospective students, your odds of success in the program, and your best shot at being admitted to the program. Do this before you spend your money on application fees.

In sum, it's not impossible, but it is going to be more leg work on your part and you won't have as many options as you would with a higher undergraduate GPA. Good luck!
posted by joycehealy at 7:08 AM on October 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

The most important thing in graduate admisisions is the sense that you'll succeed. That's multifaceted and previous academic performance is only one part. It is good that you have taken more recent classes and did well. In your personal statements you'll want to be very cautious how you present you past challenges. In general I'd recommend having your letter writers disclose your challenges if possible. This can be very difficult. Sometimes it can sound like people are making excuses or whining, even if in reality there are very legitimate excuses.
To overcome challenging previous performance, a candidate would need to demonstrate that they are incredibly sure of why they want to go to graduate school and what they want to study.
In my (and many faculty members') experience, students who aren't really sure what they want to study often lose their way in the program and don't end up finishing.
posted by k8t at 12:53 PM on October 13, 2018

Another data point for you: I dropped out of undergrad twice before finishing at a middling state school with a 2.1 GPA. I was accepted into and got my Ph.D. from an Ivy. It's all about the interview.
posted by dmd at 3:58 PM on October 13, 2018

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